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Good teachers help kids find themselves represented in the history of America

I despised history classes when I was growing up because I felt erased from them. It took one great teacher to change all of that.
Image: Teacher
An African American teacher with a group of elementary school children in a science classroom working on a robotics project. The woman is helping a boy attach wires to a model vehicle while an Asian girl watches.kali9 / Getty Images

It can feel impossible to find your place in the middle of the world when you come from a community that has been historically pushed to the margins of society. For the vast majority of people, looking for a role model — someone to emulate, someone to aspire to be — that resembles themselves or their families is not a difficult undertaking. But when you don’t look like almost anyone you learn about, and when your family’s story has more historical gaps than the average grade school textbook, like me, you can have difficulty finding where you belong in context of America.

I despised history classes when I was growing up because I felt erased from them. The stories of people from my community — the Black community — were relegated to Black History Month, made separate from the rest of the American story. During those lessons — where we recited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech or colored in pictures of Rosa Parks on that ever-present bus — I slowly realized that, save for slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, it seemed like black people did not exist for most of the history of the country I called home.

Image: Modern HERstory
"Modern HERstory: Stories of Woman and Nonbinary People Rewriting History" by Blair Imani

Everything about history class felt like a burden, from the heaviness of the despised history textbooks to the length of the lessons. As the child of one of the only Black families at the school, I felt isolated. I became hyper aware of the reactions of my classmates during history lessons about slavery, and felt like there was a magnifying glass on me. I even felt ashamed of my heritage, that such was all we’d contributed to the American experience.

I was drowning in a sea of white erasure, but that doesn’t mean that my parents and teachers failed in their valiant efforts to extend some lifeboats of representation, like when some Chinese American mothers whose children attended my school organized Chinese New Year festivals, and we learned about the contributions of Chinese Americans to the United States.

Still, even those attempts at showcasing American diversity weighted on me. My friends of Chinese descent had dynasties and family connections in other countries and my white friends had a litany of role models and the reassurance of easily discovered lineages. I knew that my ancestors were enslaved, but I did not know where they came from. (I still don’t.) There were so many holes in my family’s story that I felt like we did not have one at all — and I felt alone in that experience.

My negative feelings about history started to change in the fifth grade, when I had the blessing of being in Ms. Terzieff’s class. She finally made me feel like I was a part of the American story.

The way that Ms. Terzieff taught history was innovative to me at 10-year-old and remains revolutionary to me as an adult; I cannot overstate the healing power of her honest and transparent approach to teaching.

Ms Terzieff, for instance, was first person to explain the concept of historical erasure to me. One day in class, we debated the concept of the “American melting pot.” On the whiteboard, she drew two images — a salad bowl and a soup pot. In the analogy, the American melting pot required immigrants to lose a part of themselves in order to melt (or assimilate) into American identity. However, in the case of the salad bowl, immigrants, descendants of enslaved people, and indigenous people retained their identities while also being a part of a larger American narrative.

The class quickly became noisy with suggestions of what to include in the divine salad that is America:Tomatoes from Italy, beans and corn from South America, bok choy from China and so on. It was the first history lesson that I enjoyed.

Ms. Terzieff did not stop there however; She explained how assimilation and white supremacy changed her family’s last name: It only became “Terzieff” after being Americanized when her ancestors immigrated to the United States and passed through Ellis Island, which happened often both as a result of overburdened immigration officials and from families seeking to leave remnants of the “old country” behind.

Everyone’s history suddenly became a scavenger hunt as a result of her lesson, a game in which the truth was hidden by the powers that once were only to be uncovered by honest historians.

Honesty is what set Ms. Terzieff’s teaching style apart. She taught us that, unlike the mythology we’d learned as young children, Christopher Columbus was no hero and that, in fact, he’d planned and carried out genocide of indigenous people. It was her honest and dispassionate style of telling history that made me fall in love with the subject. She made it clear to me that history happens in full color, everyday, and she taught me that I could make history too.

Most people take for granted the importance of representation in a young person’s life, the power that it has to help us see ourselves as powerful, as important, as agents of change rather than its subjects. Fortunately, many of the people who grew up not seeing themselves represented in our culture have taken it upon themselves to be that representation the needed — and I am one of them. I wrote “Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History” as a step toward dismantling historical erasure, providing young people with a broader context from which icons past and present emerged, inspired by the passion that Ms. Terzieff first instilled in me during fifth grade.